In the early winter of 1982 I tried out for Owen Valley’s eighth-grade basketball team. A life-long nerd, I had zero little league experience, and I knew absolutely nothing about the X’s and O’s of the game. By virtue of growing up in Indiana, I had developed a decent shot, but so did everyone else…big deal. Like a lot of nerds hitting puberty I had discovered two things: One, I liked girls (particularly the attractive ones); and two, the hot girls were much more into ball-players than comic book experts. The stakes were clear: If I had any chance of getting laid before I graduated from high school, I had to make that team.
—–Given those stakes, it goes without saying that I was nervous bordering on terrified when I tried out. I screwed up a lot early in the try-outs…most of that involved dribbling, shooting, ball-handling, playing good defense…nothing too big to worry about. Then, late in the first week during a short scrimmage, I actually hit a shot from the wing.
—–“Good shot, Donnie!” my coach, a tall red-headed health teacher named Mr. McCollum said. He flashed me an enthusiastic smile and fist-pump to boot. Suddenly, all the lost dribbles, missed passes, and flubbed rebounds didn’t matter. I could just tell…I was going to make this team!
—–Two possessions later, I’m standing in the same spot where I’d hit my shot, but now (because I’d clearly established myself as a phenom) a very athletic classmate named Chad was in my face. I needed to ditch the ball and set a screen…well, I didn’t think about the “setting the screen” part at the time because (time for true confession, here) I had NO idea what the hell I was doing out there. But I was determined to pass like the star I’d imagined myself to be. In my peripheral vision I saw someone along the baseline, and—without looking—I threw the ball as hard as I could.
—–It turned out that the “teammate” along the baseline was Coach McCollum’s daughter, standing against the wall watching practice. As I recall, the ball hit her in the mid-section pretty hard. She dropped all her books, hugged the ball she had just caught, and looked at me with an expression that said, “What the hell are you doing?”
—–I was cut the next day.
—–I only tell this story because it underscores how important the concept of Hoosier Hysteria—in its traditional, single-class form—was to those of us who lived in Indiana in those days. High school basketball games were social and cultural events, a sort of congregation of personalities which only happened elsewhere at church and during the local county fairs. Like a lot of kids who went to the games, I didn’t always pay attention to them. I spent as much time working the bleachers and “networking” with girls, doing everything in my power to augment the damage that ’82 try-out had done to my clout. But the 1984-85 season (and for me every season which followed it) were different experiences. When OV stepped onto the floor and decimated a woefully undermanned Eminence Eels team by 21 points, we weren’t that surprised. But after holding off a talented Clay City squad by three, squeaking past Linton by four, and then crushing North Putnam by 31, we realized this was going to be an amazing year.
—–Owen Valley did go on to experience the sort of season most high schools have once every two or three generations. They won 21 ball games which included some of those clichéd barn-burners (a nick-name dating back to the earliest days of high school ball). There was the come-from-behind win against Greencastle (77-68), the Edgewood “slow-down” game which Greg Wright won (36-34) on a last-second shot, the back-and-forth battle with Bloomington North (69-67), and the game everyone in Spencer remembers: L&M.
—–In that contest, the Braves (a tiny Greene County school with fewer than 200 total students entered the gym with one loss on their slate and a number “3” ranking in the state polls). They had just been prominently featured in Sports Illustrated, and it remains the only time I’ve ever seen the old home gym completely filled. On the first possession, starting forward Tim Rice pulled up on the wing and popped a 16-footer. Rice wasn’t a shooter or prolific scorer, so when he squared up to shoot, the entire gym gasped. We had all-state forward Greg Wright and future NCAA star Shawn Parrish on the floor at the same time. What was he doing?
—–The ball swished the net, and the gym exploded. Over the next 32 minutes, the two teams virtually traded baskets. But what I remember the most were free throws. It seemed, as I recall, that every time L&M was in position to pull away, OV went to the line and crept ahead. I specifically recall Mark McCollum, Bobby Porter, and Walter Surigao dropping clutch charity shots when the game was threatening to slip away. In the final seconds, however, Tony Patterson…airborne…contorted himself over Parrish and kissed what would be the game-winner off the glass. And even though Wright’s herculean half-court throw tantalizingly clanged off the rim as the buzzer sounded, the game remained one of the most heralded nights in Owen Valley history.
—–But this is the thing: it wasn’t just OV’s year in ’85. Greencastle, whom the Pats would rematch with in the sectional title game (winning 72-70 on a last-second tip-in by Parrish) finished with 18 wins. Nearby Clay City enjoyed a great year. Bloomington South’s talent-rich squad would make it deep in the tournament, and Terre Haute South’s team would also experience a successful season. But all eyes were on tiny L&M, not just because of the Sports Illustrated attention, but because in the form of Purdue-bound Patterson, IU-bound Jeff Oliphant, and Indiana All-Star Chad Grounds, the Braves were flat-out good. The idea that a team from a school so small (damn near microscopic) could dominate all the teams on their slate gave rise to the sort of stories we’d all heard growing up about Milan High School’s famous 1954 state championship team. Maybe L&M could repeat that magic.
—–Alas, that wasn’t meant to be, but even the team which knocked out the Braves, Southridge’s Raiders, was by most standards a small school in its own right. And while the state title game featured one behemoth against another (Richmond’s Red-Devils vs Marion’s Giants), a season is not defined by its finish as much as by the full body of its existence. As a teacher in Warsaw I watched some great basketball, including the 1996 final-four season featuring that year’s Mr. Basketball, Kevin Ault. But I’ve never witnessed a year which has rivaled the sort of talent and excitement that I saw in 1985. My only regret is that I missed out on a chance to be more than fan because of that one stinking pass in eighth grade…that and an utter lack of knowledge and talent, but…whatever.